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Smiley faces are ubiquitous in digital communication today, but when did people first start using these cheerful icons? The origins of the smiley face can be traced back decades, to a time when the concepts of “social media” and “text messaging” didn’t even exist. This article will explore the history of the smiley face, from its disputed beginnings in the 1960s to its explosion in popularity across digital platforms in the 21st century. We’ll look at some key milestones in the evolution of the smiley, and examine how this simple graphic became a worldwide phenomenon.
Possible Origins in the 1960s
There are a few different claims about who first created the smiley face graphic. Most accounts point back to the 1960s in the United States, during a time of cultural and political upheaval.
Some credit it to Harvey Ball, a graphic artist in Worcester, Massachusetts. In 1963, Ball designed a smiley face for an insurance company called State Mutual Life Assurance. The company had commissioned him to create a visual campaign to boost morale after some downsizing. Ball came up with a bright yellow circular face with simple black oval eyes and a wide grin. The image was printed on badges and posters and distributed to employees. Ball only made $45 for his creation, but his smiley face design would leave a big imprint.
Another early use of the smiley face was in a campaign poster in 1963. Two brothers named Bernard and Murray Spain ran a political campaign in Seattle, Washington. Their posters featured the phrase “Vote for the Spain Brothers!” next to a smiley face.
It’s debated who exactly came up with the smiley face first. But these early examples in the United States established the basic form – a bright yellow circle with simple eyes and a smiling mouth. This iconic image would soon take on a life of its own.
Smiley Spreads Across Counterculture in the 1960s-70s
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the smiley face began showing up in new places, associated with the 1960s counterculture movement.
In 1967, the BBC pop radio show Radio London used a smiley face graphic in some of its promotions. The image appeared on posters advertising the station.
Around this time, some sources claim the graphic was also used to promote “good vibes” at “happenings” during the era of psychedelia. The simple smiling face conveyed a sense of good cheer during this cultural moment emphasizing peace, love, and expanding one’s mind.
The smiley really took off after it was paired with one powerful word: “have a nice day”. Philadelphia brothers Bernard and Murray Spain claim to have created the “Have A Nice Day” smiley face and popularized it through their company, Philadelphia Gift Co. The image appeared on buttons, posters, cards, and shirts sold by the company. By 1971, the smiley face with the “Have A Nice Day” slogan was plastered across American pop culture.
The smiley face became a symbol of the 1970s era in all its quirkiness and positivity. It now adorned everything from wall posters to t-shirts at a time of rising consumerism. The image’s welcoming message resonated with people desiring more optimism in the aftermath of the 1960s. Just as the counterculture embraced the smiley earlier on, mainstream American culture now followed suit.
Smiley Becomes a Pop Culture Phenomenon
From its underground roots, the smiley face image blew up into full-fledged pop culture ubiquity during the 1970s and 1980s.
The graphic appeared across many facets of society, from fashion to music to advertising. Writing in The New York Times Magazine in 1977, Arthur Lubow described the smiley face as “a fad without a cause, a meaning without significance.” While its origins may have been political or tied to counterculture, the image was now completely mainstream.
Everyone from punk rockers to preppies wore smiley face T-shirts and accessories. Major brands like Levi Strauss and NutraSweet jumped on the smiley bandwagon, using the image in marketing. The PBS children’s TV show The Electric Company featured a smiley face character named Larry. Smiley became a character greeting people at Walt Disney World starting in the late 1970s.
The graphic even inspired a pop song called “Smiley” in Australia in 1956. And smiling yellow faces showed up in pop art, such as Andy Warhol’s silkscreen paintings of smiley faces from the 1980s.
Clearly no longer a local commercial gimmick, the smiley face had blossomed into a full-blown cultural phenomenon.
Smiley Faces Adopted by the Computer Age
The next major chapter for the smiley face opened up in the 1980s and 1990s with the dawn of the computer age. The iconic little yellow face was about to take on new meaning in the digital world.
As personal computers spread into offices and homes, early email and messaging programs incorporated the smiley into interfaces. The smiley offered a way to indicate a tone or emotion in text communication.
One significant development came in 1982 when Scott Fahlman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, proposed using 🙂 and 🙁 in online forums to denote humor or irony in messages. This emoticon concept was inspired by the smiley face.
Also in 1982, the first commercial smiley face emoticons were created by software firm Opus Corporation for use on business terminals. The smiley faces could be generated by typing 🙂 or 🙁
Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, smiley faces and other emoticons gradually entered computer culture. They became a fun way for people to express themselves when communicating electronically. The rise of instant messaging and SMS texting accelerated this.
The Digital Age and Rise of Emoji
As the internet blossomed, so did the smiley. The image thrived across emerging digital communication technologies.
In the 2000s, the emergence of emoji took the smiley into new territory. Emoji were pictographs that could be inserted into messages on mobile phones in Japan. The iconic smiley face emoji quickly became one of the most popular characters.
When Apple released the first iPhone in 2007, emoji went global. The smiley face emoji conveyed emotion and humor on this revolutionary device. Other companies like Google and Microsoft also adopted emoji into their products.
The smiley face emoji remains one of the most widely used emoji today. And the graphic has continued spreading to messaging apps, social media, email programs and any other platform involving digital communication.
After originating in the 1960s, this humble icon has completed a long, strange trip to becoming one of the key tools for conveying tone and feeling across the internet age. It seems wherever communication goes, the friendly smiley tag along.
The smiley face has one of the most fascinating histories of any popular icon. From its hazy beginnings in 1960s America to its digital dominance today, the graphic has proven versatile and enduring. It maintains an instantly recognizable basic form, while taking on new shades of meaning across eras and mediums.
Few could have predicted the smiley face’s rise when it first started popping up on badges and posters decades ago. But this simple image evidently tapped into a universal human need to connect. With its friendly, welcoming vibe, the smiley face brings out our shared humanity even on cold, impersonal screens.
Wherever communication spreads, the smiley seems sure follow as an ambassador of goodwill. As technology continues to evolve in ways we can’t imagine, keep an eye out for that bright yellow circle with a simple smile.
|Decade||Key Smiley Face Milestones|
|1960s||-Harvey Ball designs original smiley face graphic in 1963|
|1970s||-“Have A Nice Day” smiley popularized|
|1980s||-Smiley faces used in early emoticon communication on computers|
|1990s||-Smiley faces incorporated into instant messaging and texting|
|2000s||-Smiley face emoji launched globally on iPhones|